Where are the best places to catch a cooler of crappie across the state? Here's what the numbers say. (March 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
You have to give the little crappie a lot of credit.
He never gets really big, he's not all that pretty to look at, and he doesn't really fight that hard once you get him hooked, but he's still among the most highly sought-after species that swims in North Carolina's inland waterways.
It must have something to do with how well he enters and leaves a frying pan full of hot grease, and how nicely he fits on a dinner plate between a cup of cole slaw and a pile of French fries or hushpuppies.
That's apparently enough to whet the appetite of thousands of fishermen, who take to the state's lakes and rivers -- especially in the spring -- to try and fill their coolers. The opportunities are certainly there, with North Carolina boasting a handful of excellent crappie fisheries in the central part of the state.
Buggs Island Lake, Falls of Neuse Lake, Lake Wylie, High Rock Lake and the big bopper of them all, B. Everett Jordan Lake, make up as good a group of crappie fisheries as you'll find anywhere in the Southeast.
None of them share the same watersheds, and they're all different as far as structure and habitat and cover, so the only thing they really have in common is that they're full of slab crappie -- the Big Five, so to speak.
Jordan has long been considered North Carolina's best all-around crappie fishery. It didn't take long after it was impounded in the early 1980s to begin producing big slabs, and very little has changed. The lake -- on the Haw and New Hope rivers south of Durham -- has everything a crappie needs: fertile waters, plenty of broad creek arms and coves for spawning, plus countless pieces of standing or laydown timber for protection.
The fishing pressure on Jordan is immense, with
anglers often coming from more than a hundred miles away to spend a day (or night) on the lake. When fishing on other good crappie lakes is discussed, there's a phrase that's often repeated, and it ends something like this: "But it's nothing like Jordan."
Put quite simply, Jordan is a very productive reservoir. Spawning success there is tremendous, and growth rates are even better. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission instituted a 20-fish daily creel limit and a 10-inch size minimum several years ago to try and protect the fishery from the tremendous pressure it faces, and the fishing hasn't skipped a beat.
Crappie at Jordan reach the 10-inch size minimum in little more than two years, and there are so many nice fish in the population that plenty of them crack the 1-pound barrier shortly after they reach keeper size. A limit of fish that averages over a pound is not uncommon.
"Jordan has always been good -- maybe the best we've got, statewide," said Christian Waters, a biologist with the commission who has overseen reservoir fisheries in the Piedmont for the past several years. "They grow so fast that if you put an 8-inch minimum (size) on 'em, they'd get one good spawn, and then they're harvested. Production is high, and they grow so fast."
Falls of Neuse Lake has probably moved into the No. 2 spot behind Jordan in recent years, which certainly gives fishermen in the Durham area a lot of options. On the surface, Falls appears to be quite different from Jordan -- it is a narrow, winding impoundment dominated by its feeder creeks -- but it produces the same quality slabs that Jordan does on a regular basis.
"Falls is as good as it has ever been," Waters said. "It really seems to stay in good shape, year after year."
It doesn't get quite the fishing pressure that Jordan
does, so the commission hasn't felt the need to put in a size minimum or creel limit, and Falls of Neuse remains an extremely productive reservoir, with a strong forage base and plenty of fish that exceed the 1-pound mark.
"On the average, Falls has some big crappie; it hangs right there with Jordan," said Durham crappie expert Rod King. "There are a lot of pound-and-a-quarter to pound-and-a-half crappie for knowledgeable fishermen."
Buggs Island, High Rock and Wylie are probably a step behind Jordan and Falls, but only because they don't regularly produce the combination of great numbers and huge fish.
At 48,500 acres, Buggs Island stretches better than 35 miles from west to east along the North Carolina-Virginia state line, an hour north of Durham. It is a fantastic fishery for largemouth bass, stripers, blue catfish and, certainly not least, crappie. Managed cooperatively by the two states, there is no minimum size limit nor daily creel limit.
Buggs Island's big draw is numbers. The lake is tremendously productive in terms of the number of crappie it produces, but it lags behind Jordan and Falls in terms of the number of really huge fish it spits out. Crappie weighing a pound to a pound-and-a-half are certainly not uncommon; they just don't show up as regularly as they do at Falls or Jordan.
A great advantage that Buggs Island has, in terms of fishing, is the amount of cover in the water; the lake is literally full of brushpiles, laydown trees and, in the spring when water levels are normally higher, a tremendous amount of shoreline cover.
"Buggs Island is the same as Falls," Waters said. "It really seems to stay good, year after year."
High Rock and Wylie are a two-hour drive west of the other members of the Big Five, and they're the most similar. Wylie covers a little more than 12,000 acres on the Catawba River west of Charlotte, and High Rock covers about 15,000 acres on the Yadkin River just south of Lexington and east of Salisbury.
Both lakes are highly developed, with thousands of boat docks and piers under which crappie can hide. Both lakes are the most fertile in North Carolina on their respective river systems, and both are dominated by a series of excellent feeder creeks.
Guide Jerry Neeley of Bessemer City fishes both lakes regularly. He said that High Rock produces better numbers of crappie overall, and Wylie produces a few more really big fish than High Rock.
"High Rock is Lake Wylie, basically," said Neeley (704-678-1043). "Both of them have lots of creeks, a little bit of stain on the water, and most of the time, a lot of structure to fish in the creeks. You've got deep and shallow piers, old and new piers.
High Rock is a numbers lake; there are an awful lot of crappie in High Rock between 8 and 10 inches long. It has to be a pretty slow day for you not to catch a limit (20 fish, 8 inches or better). Wylie is more of a quality lake. You can't catch as many crappie at Wylie as you can at High Rock, but the overall quality will be better. High Rock has always been a better hot-weather lake than Wylie, and Wylie has always been a real good lake in the winter. But from Greensboro west, I'd have to say that High Rock and Wylie are the two best lakes we've got for crappie."
Biologist Lawrence Dorsey of Albemarle manages fisheries on many Piedmont reservoirs, especially those on the Yadkin/Pee Dee system, and it's no surprise to him that fishermen love High Rock.
"It's far and away our highest-density lake," he said. "It's a good compromise; over time, High Rock has had the best of both worlds: high densities and quality fish -- but not quite the slabs they have at Jordan.
"The creel and size limits are a good compromise,
because most of the fish at High Rock get to harvestable size on the average in a year-and-a-half -- before they get 2 years old," Dorsey said. "Most of the people managing lakes look for fish in the 2- to 3-year range for harvestable-sized crappie, and we get them even earlier at High Rock."
And the rest of the Yadkin/Pee Dee system isn't too far behind. Tuckertown Lake, Badin Lake and Lake Tillery are all quality crappie fisheries, with their own particular characteristics. The reservoir the farthest downstream, Blewitt Falls Lake (near Wadesboro), is maybe right there behind High Rock.
"Blewitt Falls is our sleeper," Dorsey said. "There's very limited fishing pressure because it's off the beaten path; there's only one (boat) access area, and there's no development around the lake.
"I think what makes Blewitt Falls a good lake is that there's so much structure in the lake," he said. "It was built around the turn of the century (1900), but it still has a lot of standing timber in spots, plus rocks and shoals everywhere. And it gets very low pressure, not nearly like we get at High Rock."
The entire Yadkin/Pee Dee system is managed for crappie using the 20-fish daily creel limit and 8-inch size minimum, in part because of fishing pressure but also because of the fertility of the lakes and good growth rates.
"The story at Badin used to be that fish were very large, but there weren't very many," Dorsey said. "But we've started to pick up a few more fish than in the past, and the size structure appears to be the same.
"At Tuckertown, there's a little bit higher density, but the average size fish is a little smaller, and Tillery is a good lake, too -- good fish, but not heavy, heavy densities.
"The one really nice thing about the lower Yadkin is
that while we don't get really exceptional year-classes, wenever have gaps where you have an entire year-class missing. There are no lakes we go and sample and find no 2- or 3-year-old fish."
An hour to the west, Wylie is the jewel of the Catawba River system, which is, in general, far less productive or nutrient-rich than the Yadkin. With the exception of Wylie, crappie fisheries lag far behind their neighbors on the Yadkin system.
The commission manages Lake James, Lake Rhodhiss, Lake Hickory and Lake Norman with 20-fish daily creel limits, and Norman also has an 8-inch size minimum.
Biologist Kin Hodges of Mount Airy, whose territory includes many of the upper Catawba reservoirs, has some worries about crappie populations.
Unlike the Yadkin system, spawning success on the Catawba system can be sporadic, and Hodges said the commission is paying careful attention to several lakes where numbers of crappie seem to have dropped -- especially Lake Hickory.
"There is not a lot to be optimistic about," Hodges said. "Our catch rates this year were even lower than they were in '05, and the drop in growth rates we observed puts us at an all-time low. We put a 20-fish limit in effect this past July 1, but we still can't figure it out. And from what I hear, talking to our guys and to the Duke Power (biologists), the same thing is happening at Lake James and Lake Rhodhiss and Lake Norman.
"We have surveyed the upper end of Lake Norman -- that's where all the nutrients in that lake are. We've gotten more 10-inch fish in our samples from there than anywhere else," Hodges said. "That's where I tell people around here to fish when they ask me.
"And it seems like we can't even catch a crappie at Lookout Shoals Lake -- it's about the same as Hickory right now."
David Yow of Asheville, a commission biologist who specializes in mountain reservoirs, said that, by nature, the lakes he looks after don't have nearly the quality fisheries for crappie that are present in the Piedmont.
"We're seeing some fairly nice-sized fish in the lakes we're sampling, but I don't think we've got the potential up here to have the kind of fisheries you see in the Piedmont because of the water clarity -- and we'll never have anything like Jordan," he said.
Still, there are three reservoirs to which he points as being fairly good mountain fisheries for crappie: Lake Adger, Hiwassee Lake and Lake Chatuge.
Adger is a fairly small reservoir in Polk County that is better known as one of the best places in North Carolina to catch a muskie. But it's also a promising crappie fishery, Yow said, because of an excellent forage base.
"Adger is a small lake and it has just the one little (boating) access area, but it's been producing some fairly nice crappie," he said. "There's plenty of forage out there, and the richness of the forage and the characteristics of the reservoir make it a little better for crappie.
"At Hiwassee, 10 years ago, things were looking pretty bleak, but we've had some fairly consistent year-classes of fish since then, and the fishery seems to be picking up quite a bit," Yow said.
One of the reasons may be that Hiwassee is a changing reservoir as far as its forage base and other gamefish populations are concerned. Blueback herring showed up there several years ago -- Yow believes they were brought in from lakes in other states by fishermen who also brought in spotted bass.
In many reservoirs, the presence of bluebacks or "alewives" have a very negative effect on native walleye populations, and that's been the case at Hiwassee, said Yow, who convinced the commission a couple of years ago that Hiwassee needs supplemental stockings of fingerling walleyes to overcome the spawning failures.
The lower population of walleyes may have created a bigger percentage of forage or habitat available for crappie, Yow said. "With the walleyes knocked back, that may have allowed crappie to get a better finger-hold on the precipi
ce. They're probably finding some more room as a result of the effect the bluebacks have been having on other species of game fish."
Chatuge is a 7,500-acre reservoir on the North Carolina-Georgia border near Hayesville, and Yow said that it isn't your typical high-mountain reservoir. Its geography is not dominated by sheer rock cliffs and deep channels like, for instance, Hiwassee, Fontana or Santeetlah.
"It's a much broader reservoir, with a little more clay (bottom and banks)," Yow said. "You find bigger coves and larger areas of shallow water. You just don't have the banks dropping down into deep, deep creek channels like you do in most other mountain reservoirs.
"And we've done a lot of habitat (improvement) work there, and there's a lot of structure in the water from some bad storms 10 or 12 years ago. Plus, the lake lies in two states, and a lot of the land around it is in national forests. So, you've got two state agencies, plus the national forest people looking out for it, so it's managed fairly intensively."
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